Keith Ellison Reminds Democrats the Working Class Isn't All White, so Ditching Identity Politics Won't Work

Election '16

The outcome of the 2016 election was horrendous for the Democratic Party (and women, people of color, the disabled, the LGBTQ community, and all marginalized people, really). And relatively soon after mourning the devastation of all their hopes and dreams, liberal thinkers set out to play the blame game. Racism, sexism, ignorance, the media — all of that was brought up. But, unsettlingly enough, many liberal icons blamed their own party for its apparent focus on identity politics, or speaking to the experiences and struggles of marginalized Americans, which purportedly offended the white working class. There are many reasons why this is bullshit, and seriously, thank god for the eloquence of Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison for reminding us of the working class’ diversity.

In an interview on the Keepin’ it 1600 podcast last week, Ellison took questions about what the Democratic Party needs to do to recover and grow since its future in not only all three branches of government, but state governments as well, is shaky to say the least. Unlike others in his party (including Bernie Sanders, who emphasized the intersectionality of economic and social inequality throughout his campaign but recently called on the Democratic Party to move “beyond” identity politics), Ellison is not blaming identity politics. He isn’t ignoring the fact that so many groups continue to struggle on the basis of their identities.

“A lot has been made about the white working class. I think we’d better take a look at the working class of all colors … the one thing that unites us all is money and economic opportunity,” Ellison said.

Ellison seems to be one of few liberal thinkers who understands that we can’t just drop the interests of marginalized groups from the Democratic Party’s agenda and ignore their very real struggles to appeal to racist, privileged, and small-minded people who either resent or are disinterested in the plights of minorities.

This would not only be amoral and serve to disillusion the party’s many constituents who almost went third-party because they already don’t think the party is doing enough to promote social justice, but ultimately, it would ignore the fact that all of these references to the working class as white are simply false: the working class is incredibly diverse.

The solution isn’t to remove the experiences of and injustices faced by marginalized people from the dialogue just to appease bigots or appeal to privileged Americans who aren’t concerned with problems that don’t affect them. The answer is not to stop educating, but to promote understanding of where identity politics and working class politics are connected. Overall, this would emphasize how Sanders, Maher, and liberal-leaning columnists at the Times and other outlets are wrong to shame Democrats for campaigning strongly for social issues and portraying these issues as the big deal they are.

We can’t pretend that gender workplace inequality, access to reproductive choice, law enforcement disproportionately targeting minorities, LGBTQ discrimination, and identity-based inequality don’t remain huge problems. Nor can we pretend that these social issues don’t all have strong economic undertones in their own way — from how economic inequity renders people of color more vulnerable to racist policing, to the affordability of accessing abortion and contraception.

In saying that these aforementioned social rights “go without saying,” Sanders is wrong (as much as I love the man and it pains me to say it). As Drew Salisbury at Death and Taxes notes, to ignore identity politics would be to abandon “the very people who stand to be hurt most by a Trump presidency in the next four to eight years.”

Ellison additionally gave an example of how a Democratic economic policy would have intersectional benefits: “Raising the minimum wage would increase the pay of a million veterans, millions of women, people of color, rural people … I think these are some policies that need to take a more prominent role in our work.” Rather than cease to reach out to women, people of color, and all minorities, the Democratic Party must show how all of these groups and the white working class are united in economic struggle and how their policies are more beneficial than Republicans’.

The working class, across all identity groups, would all stand to benefit from progressive taxation, social security, expanded healthcare coverage, tuition-free public education, family leave, a higher minimum wage, and other pieces of the Democratic Party’s economic platform. The party doesn’t need to remove social consciousness from its rhetoric and platform — it needs to substantially strengthen its message on the intersectional benefits of its economic policies for all of the working class (which, again, isn’t just white!).

Ellison additionally makes the rarely discussed point that Democrats’ livelihood can’t merely be countering Trump (although this is obviously important.) Ultimately, its livelihood must be its drive to help and better the lives of the vulnerable.

“I don’t think we can make our reason to exist to be fighting Trump. Our reason to exist has to be fighting for the American working people,” Ellison said. “The overwhelming majority of folks who go to work every single day, hope to make enough money to retire someday, hoping to make enough to put food on the table and do something good for our kids. That’s where it’s at, that needs to guide everything we do.”

And if you ask me, making Ellison the DNC’s new chair wouldn’t hurt the Democratic Party’s future, either.

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